OAKLAND, Calif. -- It was only fitting that the most important shot in the Los Angeles Lakers' shocking 127-101 shellacking of the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day was immediately immortalized in meme form. This is the Meme Team, after all.
The offseason additions of Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and Rajon Rondo inspired more laughter than adulation among NBA experts, who decried the internet-famous additions' lack of shooting in an NBA geared almost entirely toward the pivotal skill. People joked that LeBron would back out of his Lakers deal after seeing the cast of characters that Magic Johnson and the front office were surrounding him with.
But on Christmas, the Lakers were the ones laughing.
The Warriors had cut the lead to as little as two points in the third quarter, the inevitable onslaught stemming from a groin injury that took LeBron James out of the game for good. But then it was Stephenson of all people, former LeBron archrival known for blowing in The King's ear as much as his questionable shot selection, hitting a momentum-regaining 3-pointer as the third quarter buzzer sounded. True to form, he followed up the huge shot with his trademark guitar-playing celebration -- though this one had some extra hip gyration that would have made Elvis Presley stand up and applaud.
The shot was an absolute dagger, which sent an already lethargic, discombobulated Warriors team to bed for good. Stephenson had 11 points and hit three of his four 3-pointers in 11 gigantic minutes, and his play was only outdone by that of another Meme Team member, Rajon Rondo.
"I thought Rajon, Lance, who haven't been playing that much, came in the game and gave us a big lift," Lakers coach Luke Walton said after the game. "The difference going into the fourth, up one or two or three and then getting back up by nine again is big for our young group on the road. Once we got that lead again, I thought the whole group settled back down. We started executing how we wanted to."
After introducing himself to Lakers fans by punching Chris Paul in the face in just the second game of the season, nobody was quite sure which version of Rondo came to Los Angeles. Was it the guy whose disastrous tenure in Dallas almost sent him out of the NBA, or was it the genius ball-handler who orchestrated the surprise New Orleans Pelicans offense to a second-half tear and the Western Conference semifinals last season?
Rondo has played well this season, despite missing 17 games with a broken finger, but it wasn't until Christmas Day that we saw his true value to this team. His lack of shooting would be a death sentence for most point guards in today's NBA, but Rondo's fearless contributions come in so many intangible iterations that were on full display against the Warriors.
Sure, he put up numbers (15 points, 10 assists, five rebounds), but his leadership and poise on a young Lakers team -- something LeBron pointed out when some doubted the signing -- proved crucial down the stretch as the team fought off the explosive Warriors attack.
"I think Rondo was gigantic in controlling the pace, getting to his spots, either for scoring in his layup package or finding guys out there," James said.
Indeed, Rondo was the best player on the court in the second half, and his vision and passing helped make Ivica Zubac the second-best.
Suddenly it makes sense why LeBron wanted players like this -- players whose aura and intangibles often outweigh their averages and percentages, analytics be damned. LeBron said he wanted playmakers, and when it was time to make plays against the Warriors in the most important game of the season, Rondo and Stephenson were right there to answer the bell.
This directly translates to a potential postseason run, where four of the Lakers' best players -- Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, enter with exactly zero games of combined playoff experience. That's why Rondo, Stephenson, McGee and Tyson Chandler, and their 281 combined postseason games, will be essential to this team's performance come playoff time.
Walton said the game plan was to have either James or Rondo on the court at all times against the Warriors because of their "veteran leadership," and you'd have to imagine that will be the case if the Lakers are able to eke out a postseason berth in the sardine tin that is the Western Conference playoff picture.
The Lakers never want James to miss any time, of course, but his absence in the second half of their most impressive win of the season on Christmas helped explain exactly why the Lakers made the moves that they did this offseason -- and why they were willing to put up with the memes.